The Paradox of Happiness
By B. Michael Rubin
Many Brazilians, particularly those who have been fortunate enough to visit the US, view their northern neighbor as paradise. “I can’t believe how organized everything is there,” one Brazilian told me. “Even the TV shows start on time. You can set your watch to them.”
No exact numbers are available from the US government, but it’s estimated that at least one million Brazilians are currently living permanently in the US. Tourist visas for the US can be obtained at US Consulates in several cities including São Paulo, which issues more tourist visas than any US Consulate in the world. However, a Brazilian tourist visa is valid for only six months of travel inside the US each year. Those who stay longer are in violation of US immigration law. However, it is unlikely that Brazilians who have over-stayed their tourist visas will get arrested because the US police do not go searching for them.
Some Brazilians have been in the US illegally for years and are essentially trapped there. If they decide to return to Brazil, they will be barred from entering the US for a period of time, possibly as long as five or ten years. Brazilians living illegally in the US know this, yet they believe the sacrifice is worthwhile to pursue the dream of happiness in paradise. They continue to live in the US – in the “Garden of Shopping Eden” as one teenager described it.
What makes the US so attractive to Brazilians? First, I believe, it’s Hollywood. Thanks to movies and TV, Brazilians watch a world that is not only deliciously foreign to them, but is actually foreign to most Americans. The TV series “Dallas” for example, was popular when it was shown on TV in Brazil years ago. Brazilians viewed it as a portrait of life in Texas – everything from the enormous ranch to the family sabotage. Today, there are girls in Brazil in their 20s named Sue Ellen, in homage to the character of JR’s wife. While Americans also enjoyed “Dallas,” I doubt they valued it for its realism or named their children after Dallas characters.
Second, thanks to the nearly 100 percent tax the Brazilian government imposes on all imported goods, it’s no surprise Brazilians want to shop in the US. Who wouldn’t appreciate shopping in Miami for a Nikon camera or iPhone or Levis jeans for half the price they cost in Brazil. Perhaps that explains why there are men in Brazil with names like Michael Jackson dos Santos Cruz and Kennedy Egydio.
In an interesting study done by psychologists in the US, it was discovered that Brazilians aren’t the only people obsessed with shopping in the US – so are Americans. Over the past decades, American houses have grown one-third larger, on average. As American families aren’t growing, and it’s unusual to find empty homes, we can assume that Americans are also accumulating more “stuff” to fill their bigger homes.
Even worse, despite the large houses, Americans are having trouble fitting all their stuff into their homes, as witnessed in the reality TV series “Hoarders” and similar offshoots. Today, most Americans cannot squeeze their cars into their garages because of all the junk in the garage, most of which is useful only once or twice a year. Many Americans have taken to renting nearby storage units. The self-storage business is a U$22 billion industry in the US.
The question I pose here is: Has the general accumulation of possessions made Americans happier? Not according to US research. In numerous psychology studies, about one third of Americans rate themselves as content with their lives. However, the same thirty-three percent figure turned up in previous studies done ten, twenty, and thirty years ago. Thus, while Americans can afford to buy more and have bigger homes, their enlargement hasn’t made them any happier.
With two thirds of Americans not content despite living in paradise, billions of dollars are being spent in the US on multiple types of personal therapy, as well as books and videos from the self-help industry, nutritional supplements, and exercise diets. Pharmaceutical companies make more money from their anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications than from other medicines.
Barry Schwartz, an American psychologist, has spent his life studying happiness in the US. He lays out his theories in the book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. He states: “Autonomy and freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, Americans don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.”
If Schwartz is right, the tremendous success of the world’s largest economy is supplying its citizens with plenty of choices but not plenty of happiness. In fact, Dr. Schwartz contends that it’s actually the enormous economic productivity of the country that is working against people’s happiness.
Schwartz says the more choices people have in their lives, the more decisions they need to make, and the more decisions people make each day, the more difficult and complicated their lives become. The reason this happens is because making decisions can not only be difficult, but it can also be stressful. The stress arises when we wonder if we’ve made the right decisions. If we believe that we’ve made a wrong decision, then we have no one to blame but ourselves, and we feel guilty and confused. This creates anger and anxiety.
Here’s an example: An American husband and wife decide to buy a car. If they don’t have a lot of money, they have a limited number of few choices. If they are rich, they have more choices. If they can afford to spend U$100,000 on a car, they can buy almost any car. How do they choose which car, and feel certain they have made the right decision?
Every time we make a decision, we create the possibility that our decision was the wrong one. Hence, the stress. Let’s say the couple decides to purchase a BMW, an expensive German car, and they buy one, fully expecting the car to be incredible, considering its price. However, several weeks later, they visit the husband’s boss, who owns a Mercedes. The boss is very proud of his new Mercedes, and he insists on taking the husband and wife for a ride. After the couple returns home, the husband tells his wife how much he enjoyed the Mercedes. Over the next few weeks, the couple wonder if they made the right choice with the BMW.
Schwartz believes the reason Americans aren’t happier is because the more time they spend making decisions, particularly unimportant ones like which brand of toothpaste to choose, the less time they focus on their real needs and important decisions.
Another significant problem in this scenario is to have more choices means to have higher expectations. Dr. Schwartz discovered that when people have higher expectations, they are more difficult to please, and thus less likely to be satisfied. He says many Americans are disappointed with their lives because their expectations are too high. This comes from having the economic ability to afford many options. His research shows that high expectations guarantee lower contentment.
In Brazil on the other hand, people have fewer choices and lower expectations and thus greater satisfaction in their lives. For example, when a girl graduates from high school in Curitiba, and her family encourages her to attend a university, she will take the vestibular (entrance exam) for a college in Curitiba. Each college has its own vestibular, and probably she won’t take more than two or three vestibulares. Thus, if she’s fortunate, she might be accepted to two schools.
However, in the US, a high school graduate takes one entrance exam for the entire country (SAT test). The scores from the SAT can be used to apply to any of the 4,000 or 5,000 colleges and universities in the US. As most American students leave their families to attend college and live at school, an American student can apply to a school in any of the 50 states from Florida to California.
American families often spend months or years deciding which universities the children should apply to. With so much time and effort and money invested in choosing a school, the family wants their choice to be the right one, and thus their expectations are high. Unfortunately, psychologists’ research shows, because of their high expectations, it will be more likely for the girl to find something she doesn’t like about the school when she begins attending. Having only two choices, the Curitiba family encounters far less stress.
Dr. Schwartz believes the secret to happiness is to have lower expectations. Brazilians expect long lines at the bank and supermarket. When a Brazilian buys a new car, he has a color choice of white, black, or silver. Brazilians expect some of their tax dollars to get lost in corruption scandals instead of being spent on reducing crime or improving schools or roads. Political corruption and government scandals are in the news every day.
Americans, on the other hand, are accustomed to having numerous choices when picking the color of their car because there’s no extra fee for a blue or green car. There is less corruption and crime in the US, but Americans expect more: they want every corrupt politician and street criminal to be caught and sent to prison. While Brazilians might have similar hopes, they know it’s an unrealistic expectation. Brazilians’ expectations are lower for what they believe the government will provide, and thus they have a greater probability of happiness.
The world is a dynamic place. Brazil is a developing country and its economic power and world status have been growing over the past decades. Logic says that as living conditions improve in Brazil, Brazilians should become happier with their lives. However, in Schwartz’s theory, the more we gain, the more we lose. The more we accumulate, the more we want. For example, the millions of Brazilians who have participated in street protests this year and in 2013 were from the middle class; they weren’t poor. Most Brazilian families are more affluent than they were a generation ago, but now they want more, and they expect more from the government.
This theory of the paradox of happiness is also at play in immigration, such as the one million Brazilians who sacrifice seeing their families so they can live in the US. Immigrants tend to come from middle-class countries, and they migrate to rich countries. We might have thought that as the world’s middle class grows, global immigration would decline because of more opportunity at home. In fact, the reverse is happening, and not only in Brazil. As the developing world grows its middle class, immigration has increased because educational and income gains have led to higher expectations.
In the end, this may be a better formula for happiness. Instead of expecting more out of life than we have, we learn to be grateful for what we do have. Every moment we are alive and healthy on this extraordinary planet is another opportunity to experience Life, which doesn’t exist on the moon or Mars. The more we expect from our country or our family and friends, the more demands we are placing on the world to satisfy us. It is not the world’s responsibility to make us happy. With a better quality of life comes higher expectations; our desires increase, and there may be no way to satisfy them. We might forget that the essence of life is to give, not to receive. When we forget humility, we forget to be grateful.
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.